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Vietnamese Cinema: First Views


Vietnamese cinema has only recently become known outside of the East Bloc countries. The first public showing of a Vietnamese feature film in the United States was that of When the Tenth Month Comes at the 1985 Hawai'i International Film Festival in Honolulu. At the 1987 Festival, a consortium of American film institutions was formed with Nguyen Thu, General Director of the Vietnam Cinema Department, to organize the Vietnam Film Project — the first attempt to introduce an entire new film industry to America. The purpose of this article is to provide a brief description of Vietnamese cinema along with an appreciation of its major characteristics and themes. I base my views on my two visits to the Vietnam Cinema Department in Hanoi — for one week in 1987 and two in 1988 — on behalf of the Hawai'i International Film Festival. During those visits, I was able to view a large number of documentaries and feature films and to discuss Vietnamese cinema with a number of department staff members. I was able to obtain more interviews during the visits of Vietnamese to the Hawai'i International Film Festival in Honolulu. This article cannot claim to be an adequate introduction to the history of Vietnamese cinema, a task I hope will be undertaken with the aid of my informants and the sources I list as completely as possible.

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1 In 1983, selections of Vietnamese films were shown at the Mostra International del Cine Nuevo at Pesaro and in Algiers. In 1984, a selection was shown at a conference in Spain to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam war. The American cinematographer Haskell Wexler and the Vietnamese director Bui Dinh Hac attended this conference. That same year, a week-long series of Vietnamese films was shown in Paris. A few Vietnamese films have also been screened at the Festival of Three Continents at Nantes.

2 This was followed by Once Upon a Time in Vu Dai Village the next year. In 1987, Fairy Tale for 17-Year Olds was shown along with the documentary 1/50th of a Second in a Lifetime. Through connections made at the festival, the former film was shown widely in the United States and then at Sao Paolo and the Berlin Film Festival. A showing of When the Tenth Month Comes was also arranged at the 1988 Hong Kong International Film Festival.

3 Members of the consortium included Nguyen Thu, Geoffrey D. Gilmore of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, L. Somi Roy of the Asia Society, Victor Kobayashi of the University of Hawai'i Summer Session, Emily Laskin of the American Film Institute, Stephen O'Harrow of the U.S. Committee for Scientific Cooperation with Vietnam, and myself. The project began with the screening of five films at the 1988 Hawai'i International Film Festival and the participation of two film makers and a film critic from Vietnam. The panel discussions with Vietnamese and American film makers at that festival were, to my knowledge, the first public bilateral discussions of the war to be held in the United States. An American tour of those five selected films and others is now in progress, including an estimated thirty-five sites.

A number of international contacts for Vietnamese cinema were made through the Festival as well. For a major example, Neil Gibson and Leslie Gould founded the Campaign for Vietnam Cinema in England, which has shipped more than a container load of equipment to Vietnam, has organized in 1990 a Season of Vietnamese Films at the National Film Theatre in London, and has arranged for the sale of five features and two documentaries to Channel 4. Gibson's documentary Vietnam Cinema (1960) is an important historical record.

4 I would make special mention of Vice Minister of Culture Nguyen Dinh Quang (both visits and 1988 festival), the General Director of the Vietnam Cinema Department Nguyen Thu (second visit and 1987 festival), the Deputy General Director Bui Dinh Hac (second visit and 1988 festival), and the directors Nguyen Xuan Son (1987 festival) and Dang Nhat Minh (1988 festival), who spent two months in Hawai'i as Filmmaker-in-Residence at the Institute of Culture and Communication, East-West Center. Also very helpful were Nguyen Van Tinh, Pham Ngoc Diep, and Duong Manh Hien, who cared for me in Hanoi.

On those visits and festivals, see, e.g., Anonymous, “Day La Lan Dau Tien Toi Duoc Gap Ke Thu…”, Tuoi Tre Chu Nhat (15 01 1989): 9; P. B. , “Giua Viet Nam Va My”, Saigon Giai Phong (15 01 1989); Booth Ethel Greenfield, “The Vietnam War: De-Rambo-ized by the Vietnamese”, Los Angeles Times/Calendar (19 03 1989): 65; Burlingame Burl, “Festival offers insight on Vietnam”, Honolulu Star-Bulletin (29 11 1988): B-1; Charlot John, “Vietnam, The Strangers Meet: The Vietnam Film Project”, in The East-West Center Presents the Hawai'i International Film Festival, November 27-December 3, 1988 (Honolulu: The East-West Center, 1988), pp. 4449, Vietnamese Cinema: The Power of the Past”, Journal of American Folklore 102, No. 406 (10-12 1989): 442–52 and Victims of a Common Tragedy”, The Los Angeles Times, Calendar Part II: Festival '90 (26 08 1990): 5, 19; Dac Tran, “Suy Nghi Bau Dau Cua Mot Nha Nghien Cien My Ve Phim Truyen Viet Nam [Initial Thoughts of an American Researcher on Vietnamese Feature Films]”, Nghe Thuat dien anh, No. 2 (1987): 55 ff; Ebert Roger, “Hawaiian fest promotes East-West understanding”, Chicago Sun-Times (12 12 1987), How the other side views Vietnam: Hollywood images trigger festival fire”, Chicago Sun-Times (11 12 1988): 3, 6; Fuhrman Janice, “In film, U.S., Vietnam making peace: Emotions run high as film festival presents both sides of a common tragedy”, The Japan Times (9 12 1988): 15; Hampe Barry, “Vietnamese gov't preps docu series”, The Hollywood Reporter (10 11 1987a): 1, 4 and Vietnam seeks co-prod'n deals”, Hollywood Reporter (3 12 1987b): 1, 18; Herter Eric, “Antidote to Hollywood: Vietnamese Films Show The Human Face of War”, East West 8, No. 3 (Spring 1989): 12, 14; Jaehne Karen, “Cinema in Vietnam: When the Shooting Stopped … and the Filming Began”, Cineaste 17, No. 2 (1989): 3237; Kobayashi Victor, “Vietnam cinema flourishes without war stories”, Honolulu Star-Bulletin (19 05 1988): A-23; Minh Dang Nhat, “Phim Vietnam o Ha-oai”, Nhan Dan/Chu Nhat (12 03 1989): 4; O'Harrow Stephen, “Vu Dai Village in Those Days”, in The Hawaii International Film Festival, November 30-December 6, 1986 (Honolulu: The East-West Center, 1986): 50; Scott Jay, “Comparing images of a shared wound: Filmmakers on both sides look at Vietnam War”, The Globe and Mail, Toronto (9 12 1988): C1; Smyser A. A., “Spotlighting movies made in Vietnam”, Honolulu Star-Bulletin (29 03 1988): A-3; Son Xuan, “Gap Go Ha-oai [Meeting in Hawai'i]”, Nhan Dan (16 01 1988): 3; Turner Charles, “Vietnamese filmmaker says ‘our art does reflect life’”, Centerviews (0102 1989): 5; Welch Bob, “Just like the movies: Her turkey dinner helped bring opposing nations together”, Journal-American, Seattle (28 12 1988): A3. The American tour of Vietnamese films has occasioned a large number of articles.

I have since received letters with news from Vietnam and have had the opportunity of updating my information in long conversations with Neil Gibson at the 1990 Hawai'i International Film Festival, after he had spent six months in Hanoi. I am grateful also for the observations of the non-Vietnamese with whom I discussed Vietnamese films. Due to communication difficulties with Vietnam, my information is still incomplete on a number of points and references and I was unable to double-check others.

More information can be found in the publications of the Vietnam Cinema Department and other Vietnamese organizations, in English, French, and Vietnamese: Anonymous, Dang Muc Phim Viet Nam 1980–1982: List of Vietnamese Films (Hanoi (?): The Viet Nam Film Archives, 1983); Anonymous, Vietnamese Feature Films, Films de Fiction Vietnamiens: Catalogue 1972–1984 (Ho Chi Minh City: Magazine “Dien Anh” [The Cinema], 1985); Diem Trinh Mai, 30 Years of Vietnam's Cinema Art (Hanoi: The Vietnam Cinema Archives, 1983); Bao Banh and Ngoc Huu, L'Itinéraire du Film de Fiction Vietnamien: Experiences vietnamiennes (Hanoi: Éditions en Langues étrangères, 1984); Ngo Manh Lan, “Cinema of Viet Nam on the Way of Approaching Life” (Typescript, n.d.) and “Looking Inwards: Vietnamese Cinema in the Eighties”, Cinemaya, No. 2 (0103 19881989): 614; Can Nguyen Duy, ed., Lich Su Dien Anh Cach Mang Viet Nam (Hanoi: Cue Dien Anh, 1983); also to be consulted are the Vietnamese-language film magazine Dien Anh and the English-language Film Vietnam. Vinafim regularly publishes mimeographed information sheets on new films.

5 This film was the product of a Vietnamese team that included the work of the camera-man Nguyen Thu, now the General Director of the Vietnam Cinema Department. A separate film was made by the distinguished Russian director Roman Karmen, Vietnam on the Road to Victory, working with the script writer Nguyen Dinh Thi and the director Pham Van Khoa. On the prior history of cinema in Vietnam, see Bao and Ngoc “L'Itinéraire”: 3 ff. I am unable to discuss pre-1975 South Vietnamese films. The majority of these were reportedly entertainment movies, often including music. Dang Nhat Minh told me that the one artistic film he knew was Xin Chon Noi Nay Lam Que Huong. After 1975, the South Vietnamese industry was reorganized by Northerners, and a number of North Vietnamese directed movies at the Ho Chi Minh City studio, such as Hai Ninh with First Love and Hong Sen with The Abandoned Field. All but a few of the post-1975 films I have seen were produced in North Vietnam.

6 For details see Diem , “30 Years”: 3341.

7 In the late 1980s, a typical budget approximated forty million dong; the exchange rate with the U.S. dollar varied from 380 dong to 4000 (monetary reform has since stabilized the situation). The necessary money is loaned from a bank and must be repaid from funds generated by selling the film to the distributor, who now has the right to refuse to accept a film. Recent competition from television has depleted financing, resulting in even lower budgets and shorter shooting schedules. The earlier distributing agency has now been divided into Fafim for internal distribution and Vinafim for external. External distribution has until recently been limited mainly to East Bloc countries.

8 All purchases were apparently being made from East Bloc countries. The film, all 35 mm., was usually the East German (Orwo NT55 Firma negative, Orwo PF2 Firma stock), although the Vietnamese would have preferred the more expensive Kodak. Orwo black and white is passable, but the colour film has proved so unstable that the department cancelled its plans to start filming most features in colour (they wanted to make colourful, historical films for the international market). The Campaign for Vietnam Cinema has now provided a 35 mm. hot processing negative machine that can handle Fuji and Kodak, but because of the expense of those stocks, the first purchases are reportedly being made of the West German Agfa.

German, Soviet, and American cameras are used (Arriflex 2-B is mentioned), but they are practically antique. Some lenses have lost their sharpness in depth-of-field focus, and filters are few. A great deal of time is lost adjusting lights that are too old and too few. The indoor studio in Hanoi is an old, dusty, barn-like structure without heat or air-conditioning. Little work is done in video because of the lack of equipment, but more video and television work is projected. The latest work of the director Dang Nhat Minh was in video. Recent donations of equipment by the Campaign for Vietnam Cinema should improve the situation markedly.

Film making — as other enterprises in Vietnam — is complicated by the government's policy of guaranteed employment. The shoot I witnessed was burdened by a work group of fifty people, when twenty-five would have sufficed. The superfluous ones simply got in the way and watched. Government policy — as well as more personal reasons — can encourage the department to spread its few funds as widely as possible rather than concentrating them on the very best film makers.

9 Lan, “Looking Inwards”: 10.

10 Nolan Webster K., “Vietnam glasnost: ‘Socialist formulas don't work’”, The Honolulu Advertiser (12 08 1988): A-27.

11 See Clark Paul, Chinese Cinema: Culture and Politics since 1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 41 ff, 44, 61, 6982, 156–60.

12 I was unable to obtain an exact definition of the credit line Bien Tap “Script Approval”, an office of the Ministry of Culture (Neil Gibson, personal communication), or to discover the function of a woman I met who was checking a new print of a film that had already been released (possibly another make-work position).

13 The only film that I was told had been suppressed after completion is Hai Ninh's Shipwreck Beach of 1984, which was withdrawn after its showing at that year's national film festival. Reports vary widely on the reasons for this action. Apparently not a factor was the nudity in the film — more than in any other Vietnamese film to date and earlier by three years than Minh's The Young Woman on the Perfumed River. When the film was first shown, one government official objected to the scene in which the very evil villain describes living in Vietnam as being in a prison; the official called this “a slap in the face of the government”. Others say the film was not released because of its aesthetic failings, a real possibility.

14 Born in Hanoi in 1934, Nguyen Thu started work as a camera-man in 1952, contributing footage to more than ten documentaries, including the first version of Dien Bien Phu (1954). While working on that film, Thu lost a leg while moving in a mine field to get a better camera angle. From 1960 to 1964, he studied at the Faculty of Feature Films Direction of the All-Union-States Institute of Cinema in the USSR. After further work as a scriptwriter and director, he became in 1978 the Deputy General Director of the Vietnam Cinema Department and Director of the Feature Films Studio in Hanoi. In 1984, he became the General Director of the department and a member of the National Assembly (and member of the Culture and Education Commission of the VIIth and VIIIth Legislatures of the Assembly).

15 Diem , “30 Years”: 21.

16 On Russian teachers in China, see Clark , “Chinese Cinema”: 40 ff. The Vietnam Film Archives and the Cinema Technique Institute were founded in 1979, Diem , “30 Years”: 3740.

17 For instance, the directors Hong Sen and Dang Nhat Minh studied in Bulgaria; Nguyen Thu, Nguyen Xuan Son, Le Duc Tien, and Do Minh Tuan in the Soviet Union; and Luu Trong Hong, Chief of the Technical Section of the Hanoi Feature Film Studio, and his chief engineer Nguyen Kim Cuong in East Germany. Pham Ky Nam and Dang Nhat Minh studied in France.

18 I was told of a 1975 co-production with the Soviet Union on the bombing of Haiphong, Coordinates of Death. In 1987, the department collaborated with the German Democratic Republic on Life in the Forest, the story of a German fighting with the French army who defected to the Viet Minh.

19 Diem , “30 Years”: 22.

20 Manuel Susan, “Vietnam's view: The other side of the picture: Vietnam's filmmakers depict war in human terms”, Honolulu Star-Bulletin (11 1988): B-1.

21 Minh Dang Nhat, “In the Realm of Darkness and Light”, Cinemaya, No. 7 (0406 1990): 12.

22 For the history of the Central Studios of Documentary and Scientific Films, Hanoi, see Diem , “30 Years”: 34 ff. In 1985 Luu Xuan Thu was appointed director of the studio. Born in 1932, he began his career as an actor and became a famous cinematographer for both documentaries and feature films. He is still active as a director of documentaries. He has recently been appointed director of Secofilm, described above.

23 Minh Dang Nhat, “So That Different Peoples May Come Together”, in The East-West Center Presents the Hawai'i International Film Festival, November 27-December 3, 1988 (Honolulu: The East-West Center, 1988): 4043. Hong Sen began as a army camera-man and turned to features only after the war, using his experiences as a basis for The Abandoned Field. The development of feature films from documentaries parallels the earlier one of prose novels from journalism. In Vietnamese literature, prose was used mostly for government reports and short folk tales, while “novels” were in verse. Twentieth-century journalism influenced the creation of modern Vietnamese language and new genres, especially the prose novel, which could be romantic, but was more often realistic; e.g., Vien Nguyen Khac and Ngoc Huu, Anthologie de la Littérature Vietnamienne, Volume 3, Deuxième Moité du XIXe Siècle — 1945 (Hanoi: Éditions en Langues Étrangères), pp. 54 ff, 369.

24 Diem , “30 Years”: 15 ff.

25 Arriving at the Steps of the Bridge, on a Vietnamese-Soviet construction project, is influenced by Electric Line, but less successful. A number of documentaries are undoubtedly bland, if informative on the many interesting aspects of Vietnamese culture — such as Lacquer Painting, The Secret of the Statue of the Dau Pagoda, and The Conical Hat. A number of other works can be categorized as “newsreel documentaries”, often with a heavy ideological slant. Ho Chi Minh City, May 1978 describes the city three years after the 1975 takeover, reporting on the efforts at social reform. The Class for Compassion's Sake describes efforts to care for disabled or homeless children in the city. The Day of Return [Ngay Ve], the first documentary to be made in Kampuchea after the invasion by the Vietnamese, combines moving interviews with Kampuchean displaced persons and victims of the Pol Pot regime with unfortunate footage of a staged victory parade and rally. I have described a number of documentaries in Charlot John's “Fairy Tale for 17-Year Olds”, “Vietnamese Documentary Films”, in The 1987 Hawai'i International Film Festival, November 29-December 5, 1987 (Honolulu: The East-West Center, 1987), pp. 65 ff, 6770.

26 I have not seen the sequel, which carries the biography beyond 1945, but have been told it is equally successful.

27 An interesting aspect of this effort at completeness is the attention paid in war documentaries to all those involved in the war effort, especially those whose work is usually unnoticed. For instance, Battleground along the Route describes the activities of those charged with keeping the supply routes open, from the dangerous work — such as exploding anti-personnel mines — to the ordinary but necessary, like tending gardens. The film can be compared to the French 1952 documentary Avec la Rafale (directed by Kowal) about armoured trains. Keeping the routes open is a subject of segments of other French documentaries of the time. The possible influence on Vietnamese cinema of documentaries made by the French army on the Indochina war should be explored.

28 Return to Dien Bien PhuThe Hope is the record of an anniversary celebration of the battle, which shows the current state of the site. The hope for peace is personified by the ethnic people of the region, who have suffered for centuries from living in such a border and battle zone. They can now enjoy peace and unity with their neighbours, as symbolized in their circular dance of welcome into which the visitors are drawn.

29 Diem , “30 Years”: 11, 16. Also Nolan, “Vietnam glasnost”. Compare Clark , “Chinese Cinema”: 44 ff.

30 Diem , “30 Years”: 27. For China, compare Clark , “Chinese Cinema”: 56 ff, 63 ff, 101, 117 ff, 125 ff, 133–37, 166, 180.

31 Minh , “So That Different Peoples”: 43. Charlot , “Power of the Past”: 448–51.

32 Anonymous, “Vietnamese Feature Films”: 33. When Mother Is Away was a popular success, but was heavily criticized by the army, which protested that it would never let a mother of five children — or even two! — leave them alone to go on a mission. Such a mother would not be asked to serve except in a support capacity, and if she absolutely had to leave, her children would be placed in the care of others. The Vietnam Cinema Department replied that it was taking artistic license to tell a good story.

33 In that film, the director reportedly left his actors largely to their own devices. On Pham Van Khoa, see Diem , “30 Years”: 23, 26, 56, 58; Quy Hoang, “Veteran Film Director Pham Van Khoa: People's Artist”, Film Vietnam, No. 2 (1984): 14 ff; Anonymous, “Vietnamese Feature Films”: 39, 73; on the film, O'Harrow, “Vu Dai”.

34 Diem , “30 Years”: 23, 24, 26, 55, 57 ff; Anonymous, “Vietnamese Feature Films”: 11, 19, 31; Charlot , “Vietnam, The Strangers Meet”: 47 ff.

35 Diem , “30 Years”: 26, 57 ff, 60; Anonymous, “Vietnamese Feature Films”: 13, 25.

36 Diem , “30 Years”: 23 ff, 26, 44, 56, 58 ff; Anonymous, “Vietnamese Feature Films”: 5, 9, 17, 35. During my second visit to Hanoi, Hai Ninh received Geoffrey Gilmore and me graciously at the studio and accorded us four interviews, which I have used in this article.

37 A Vietnamese who lived through the bombings told me that fear and some panic were the normal reactions. In contrast, in Hai Ninh's The 17th Parallel, the children are horrified rather than edified by the burning of an old villager who has worked for the resistance.

38 Diem , “30 Years”: 23, 51, 55 ff, 60; Anonymous, “Vietnamese Feature Films”: 21.

39 Earlier, the officer has been shown looking at the photograph he took of the heroine while he listens to some piano playing. When the husband attacked the South Vietnamese officer, a needle stuck in the groove of the record being played. Curiously, a French army documentary of 1952, Aviation de Chasse en Indochine (directed by Kowal), uses jazzy piano playing as background music to a scene of the fighter plane approaching and attacking the target.

40 Diem , “30 Years”: 26, 54 ff, 59, 61; Van Hac , “Hong Sen and his Works”, Film Vietnam, No. 1 (1984): 10 ff; Anonymous, “Vietnamese Feature Films”: 23, 27, 45, 55; Charlot , “Vietnam, The Strangers Meet”: 45 ff.

41 Anonymous, “Vietnamese Feature Films”: 51, 61; Charlot John, “When the Tenth Month Comes…”, in The Hawai'i International Film Festival, November 26-December 8, 1985 (Honolulu: The East-West Center, 1985), p. 48; “Vietnam, The Strangers Meet”: 46 ff; Minh , “Phim Vietnam”, “In the Realm”, which contains an autobiography and filmography, which should be compared with the following information from different sources. Dang Nhat Minh's documentaries (director and script writer) include On the Trails of Geologists [Theo Chan Nguoi Dia Chat], 1968; Ha Bac — My Native Land [Ha Bac — Que Huong], 1969; The Faces of May [Thang 5 Nhung Guong Mat], 1975; Nguyen Trai — Great Vietnamese Poet of the 18th Century [Nguyen Trai], 1980; Hanoi — City of Flying Dragons [Hanoi — Thanh Pho Rang Bay] (video), 1986. Feature Films: Nhung, a Young Woman of Saigon [Chi Nhung], 1970; Stars on the Sea [Nhung Ngoi Sao Bien], 1973; A Rainy Day at the End of the Year [Ngay Mua Cuoi Nam], 1978; City Under the Fist [Thi Xa Trong Tam Tay], 1982; When the Tenth Month Comes [Bao Gio Cho Den Thang 10], 1984; The Young Woman on the Perfumed River [Co Gai Tren Song], 1987; [the following item is from Minh's 1990 filmography] A Man Alone [Chi Mot Nguoi Con Song] (video), 1989. On the three before the last item, Minh was scriptwriter as well as director; I have no further information on A Man Alone.

Minh was born in 1938 in Hanoi, the son of a prominent doctor. He studied at the lyçée at Hue and, when his parents joined the resistance, in the forests of Tuyen Quang Province, graduating in 1954. He studied later at the Institute of Russian Language and Literature, Moscow, graduating in 1959. He worked as a Russian translator at the Vietnam Cinema Department until he was asked to direct a documentary. He received six months training in Bulgaria in 1976 and eight months in Paris in 1985. He has published award-winning short stories and film criticism. He was elected General Secretary of the Vietnam Cinematography Association in 1989.

42 Karnow Stanley, Vietnam: A History (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), pp. 225 ff.

43 Minh , “Phim Vietnam”: 40.

44 Nguyen Xuan Son was born in 1938 and studied directing at the Vietnam Cinema School from 1965 to 1968, where he then worked there as a lecturer until 1972. From 1972 to 1979, he studied feature film direction at the All-Union-States Institute of Cinema in Moscow. Besides the two films discussed, Nguyen Xuan Son has directed A Blunder, 1983; Looking for the Land, 1984; and The River Mouth (documentary), 1985. Anonymous, “Vietnamese Feature Films”: 69.

45 Charlot , “Fairy Tale for 17-Year Olds”: 65 ff.

46 Le Duc Tien was born in 1949. From 1967 to 1972, he worked as a war reporter for the military studio and from 1975 to 1979 studied film directing at the Soviet University of Cinema. Le Duc Tien's professors were A. Xtolpier and N. Ozerop. In 1982, he was assistant director on The Case of the Aimless Bullet and in 1983 on The Mistake. In 1985, he directed The Sound of the Peace Bomb. Charlot “Vietnam, The Strangers Meet”: 48 ff.

47 The Green Berets seems to have exercised an important influence on later films. Its training sessions are echoed in Full Metal Jacket, and the famous “birth” scene in Platoon of soldiers deplaning in Vietnam seems to have been taken directly from the parallel scene in The Green Berets. Dang Nhat Minh viewed a large number of American films on the war while he was Filmmaker-in-Residence at the East-West Center; his diplomatic response when asked to evaluate a film he disliked was, “It's better than The Green Berets.”

Important and unrecognized has been the influence on American films of Pierre Schoendoerffer's La 317e Section [Platoon 317] (1965) and The Anderson Platoon (1967). Schoendoerffer is now coordinating a feature film on Dien Bien Phu to be filmed in Vietnam. He was the French army documentary camera-man for that battle and was captured at the fall of the fortress.

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